An open letter from GPG foster failure/adopter Jeff Haertling

My wife Susan and I were introduced to your organization thru a colleague of hers (Denise Webster) at work.  Our family has always been owned by dogs, and we’ve always been owned by them in pairs.  We’ve been blessed with a wonderful pair of Golden Retrievers (Bogart and Bailey) who were our kids “BC” (Before Children). Later we welcomed a Chocolate Lab (Coda) into our family after we lost our male Golden.  When the time had come to finally say goodbye to Bailey, we grieved just as we did for Bogart, but we knew that we’d soon open our doors to another pet.
This is where Gateway Pet Guardians came in.  When Susan first shared a picture of “Maverick” with me and our children Alex and Alayna, she did so with a stern caveat that we were going to try something different this time.  We had attended your golf outing twice and had supported your causes, so this time we were going to help by fostering a pet, in lieu of purchasing one.  Coda would get a buddy to play with, and we would be helping not just one animal, but several.
On the evening that PJ showed up with Maverick, what we witnessed was a sad, pathetic-looking animal that had obviously been neglected, possibly abused and was certainly in need of a good home.  Although our family had been pre-screened by your group, PJ  nonetheless emphatically gave us instructions on the care, handling and feeding requirements specific to this dogs needs.  That first night he was understandably unresponsive having just lost his “manhood” earlier that day.  He had heart worms, a nappy coat and although recently bathed, he was still ripe!  The final instruction PJ gave to us was to keep him in solitary confinement for a few days until the results of his heart worm tests came back.  This was not only for Maverick’s safety but Coda’s as well.
Solitary confinement wasn’t exactly what Maverick had in mind however, and three and a half years later we’re still not sure exactly how it happened that morning – but Maverick escaped.  Not just from the cage that was located in our basement “dog’s room”, but also from the room itself, and from the yard!  As we all left for work and school that morning, the cage door was closed, the dogs trap-door to the back yard was down and the door to the outside was latched.  Coda was free to roam our fenced backyard, while his new mysterious friend was not.
I came home for lunch that day, simply to check on the boys and make sure that Mav was doing okay.  As I entered the house, Coda was attentively standing guard on the deck staring back at me through the glass door.  As I proceeded downstairs and into the “dog’s room”, I was shocked again to see Coda greeting me at the interior door.  The cage door was open as was the exterior door to the backyard.  No Maverick.  “Crap”, was the first thing out of my mouth, as I recalled PJ having us sign some document attesting that we’d not only care for the dog, but that we’d also incur some financial penalty if he was ever found loose again after abandonment.  We certainly hadn’t abandoned him – this was a bonefide prison break!
I called Susan at her office, then called mine, to let my staff know that my return would be delayed until I found our missing house guest.  How hard could it be?  He had just had the worst imaginable surgery any man could have, and was still sporting the coned “lamp shade of shame” head gear.
I spent the next hour roaming our entire subdivision, along with my posse that included a neighbor, an AT&T repair guy and two gentlemen in an AmVets truck that were willing to help.  Ultimately, Maverick decided that it was too hot and he was too weak to find his way back to the old hood in East St. Louis, and he’d give St. Charles County another try.  He showed up back in our driveway a short time later and followed me into the air conditioning to get a cool drink that was kindly, yet reluctantly provided to him.
My suspicions then were confirmed that – this dog was different.  He was both brilliant and mischievous as hell all at the same time.
Within three days of fostering we’d broken the first two Cardinal rules:
  1. Don’t lose the animal. 
  2. Don’t get too attached.
By the weekend, my wife had renamed the dog and was drafting an email to let PJ know that we’d be proceeding with formal adoption paperwork for “Shadow”.  I offered up the name “Houdini”, as I still don’t understand how he managed to open a cage, turn a door knob without the use of an opposable thumb and CLIMB AND JUMP OVER A FENCE HAVING JUST BEEN NEUTERED!
For the next several weeks, we helped bring Shadow out of his shell and watched in amazement as this dog got to experience some of the nicer aspects of his new life.  He enjoyed road trip to our weekend house at the lake.  He LOVED going on boat rides King-Of-The-World style always perched heads-up, chest out and ears flapping in the wind on the bow of the boat.  He liked his people, especially his mom that fell early and hard for his ice blue eyes, but he loved his buddy Coda.  Shadow was literally Coda’s shadow, and hated to be separated from him.  Even while at the groomers, a mere five feet apart – Shadow didn’t want to be separated from Coda, who typically got a bath first.
While he loved many things, he also had a few dislikes.  Thunderstorms topped the list.  PJ had told us that Shadow (a.k.a. – Maverick) had always been chained outside when she visited him for the first year of his life. His instincts alerted him long before any Doppler radar could detect an approaching storm and most often he took preemptive measures by taking a stuffed toy and pillow from our daughters room with him into a closet well before the first clap of thunder.
He also hated “confinement”.  Just as he did on the first day as a guest, Shadow frequently jumped the fence to roam the neighborhood.  The fence was adequately tall enough for a dog twice his size, and even an electric wireless fence couldn’t confine him.  We were obviously concerned for his safety as well as the safety of others, but all in all, we came to accept that he was simply a very social dog that needed more freedom than our half acre backyard offered.  Occasionally though, Shadow showed his mischievous side by coming home with other dogs toys.  We often joked that – “You can take the dog out of East St. Louis, but you can’t take the East St. Louis out of the dog.”
Clearly though, the most unique trait about our youngest family member was his ability to talk.  While we could never quite find the right translation, Shadow talked every morning as the procession from the bedroom, down the hall, past the living room and into the kitchen took place.  It was always in the same order – Shadow first, often times walking backwards as he talked.  Then me, then Coda as the subservient and obedient “real” dog.  Most of the time, we stopped first at the coffee pot, then proceeded to the deck door which led to an outside staircase to the backyard which allowed the boys to take care of their morning constitution.  He wasn’t simply telling us that he had to go to the bathroom, he appropriately barked or whined for that.  No this was talking.  And both morning and night he had some sort of story to tell.  If it was a particularly good story, he’d growl, woo-woo, then howl in a rhythmic pattern that certainly made sense to him.  And if the day was uneventful, he’d simply grumble in a deep low tone as to let you know that nothing exciting had happened that day.  Without question, it was a highlight of our family’s day.
After a while, we had gotten accustomed to this daily ritual.  It amused both family and friends when they’d hear it for the first time, but to our immediate family it became a funny and familiar routine.  Then sometime this past fall, the talking stopped.  Shadow was still only an adolescent, but he started to show signs of an animal three times his age.  Then a few weeks before Thanksgiving a rather noticeable weight loss prompted a call to our vet, and all sorts of tests were ran.  The initial fear was lymphoma but the tests were inconclusive, so we ordered them again.  The vet seemed certain that the blood work had indicated some sort of leukemia,lymphoma or immune deficiency, but they couldn’t confirm it.  We pumped him full of drugs that gave him some relief and for a brief time convinced us that he’d be okay.  The drugs enhanced his weakening appetite, but they also made him feel good enough to start talking again.  His voice wasn’t as strong as before and his demeanor somewhat subdued, but he was talking again nonetheless.
Unfortunately for all, the medicines effectiveness began to wane.  Although we had already spent more on Shadows health care than we had on our first car together, Susan and I were willing to proceed as long as Shadow was still up for it.  While I’m convinced that his head was still in the fight, that he still had more to tell us – his body simply couldn’t keep up.  The final diagnosis was bone cancer.  Although we had been down this road with a four-legged family member before and although it was the humane thing to do, this time was different.
He had an unbelievable zest for life.  He taught us how to appreciate those things that we had taken for granted.  He made us laugh. He was politely obedient, but only when he had to be.  He always gave you that look, like he was up to something. He didn’t have the pedigree of a purebred, but when his frizzy-wiry-nappy mane was properly groomed, he posed like a show dog.  His eyes were ice blue, but never cold.  And finally, Shadow was magical – Not just because he could escape on a whim, but because the spell he cast upon our family’s hearts will last forever.
We’re not sure if (honestly, when) we’ll be looking to expand our family again, but rest assured should the time come, we’ll be reaching out to you, PJ, and Gateway Pet Guardians.  Thank you from the bottom of our hearts for rescuing this amazing dog.  We were very grateful to have been adopted by Shadow.
Jeff Haertling & Family

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